When I was a kid in the 1960s, we roamed our neighborhood in a pack—a bunch of exuberant kids 4 to 14. We had a secret whistle and, on summer nights, usually during dinner, the whistle would float in from outside and we would bolt, our mothers' shouts at us to finish eating ignored.
We'd play baseball or bat ball, or hide and seek, or just sprawl on a neighbor's lawn and talk. When we played ball, it was in the middle of the street, and when a car appeared, we got out of the way. When it passed, we picked up our bats and gloves and went back to our game.
No one watched us. No one dragged us inside. We were—shhh—unsupervised.
During the day, we trolled our neighborhood barefoot or on bikes and skateboards, looking for a pool to cannonball into. We made up games, climbed trees, collected June bugs, stared into the night sky for hours while telling each other scary stories, read books, and played board games and cards. We lived on sugary popsicles and Kool-Aid and inhaled air brown with smog and swallowed chlorine by the gallon from the deep end of swimming pools. The sun turned our skin brown (this was before sunscreen) and the pavement made our feet tough as old boots. We scraped our knees, stubbed our toes, broke our arms, fought, made up, laughed with abandon and cried our eyes out.
We walked the mile home from elementary school alone. We saw adult movies and read anything we wanted. We watched TV. A lot. When we were older, most of us had stolen the family car at least once and taken a carload of friends (no seatbelts) to the beach; gotten smashed, usually from our parents' liquor cabinet; and smoked pot that we snitched from an older sibling's stash.
When we got caught (and we always got caught), our punishment was reasonable—extra yard duty, a missed party or we had our allowance suspended for a few weeks. We weren't sent to shrinks or put on Ritalin or pumped full of antidepressants. We weren't labeled as troublemakers or forbidden to see our friends, nor were our friends forbidden to see us. We were out-of-control hooligans, yet we managed to get good grades without any help from our parents and got into prestigious universities without studying for the SATs.
We were free to be kids—to create our own fun, to use our imaginations, to interact with each other and solve our own problems all without adult interference. We survived, yet if it were today, our parents would be serving time for child endangerment.
Today's kids are the safest of any past generation. But at what price?
When my daughter was little—during what I call the infancy of the helicopter parent phenomenon—I watched her friends' parents create and control their every move. Monday: school, ballet, violin, snack, homework, dinner, half an hour of TV but only a nature show on VHS, maybe a little reading but only from a parent-approved list, then bed. Tuesday: rinse and repeat.
What about time for daydreaming or hanging out, shooting the breeze with friends? What about spontaneous inventiveness and creativity? And what about the F-word: "fun"?
I get the safety issue. I walked by that car with the passenger door open and the guy with his dick in his hands. I found that stack of dirty pictures flung in the gutter. I saw the police drag the man across the street away in handcuffs after a roaring fight where he punched his wife out in front of their three kids. I found the dead, decomposed body of a local drug dealer, black and puffy with an empty syringe sticking out of his arm, parked near the railroad tracks.
Am I emotionally damaged by these events? Is my life in ruins? Am I unable to attract and sustain good relationships, personal and professional? Did I grow up too fast? Did I miss out on the beauty of a fairytale childhood?
Just the opposite.
I'm not saying we shouldn't keep children safe but I believe choreographing their every move holds another sort of danger. Life is tough and sheltered kids are at a clear disadvantage when thrown unprepared into the harsh reality of the real world. You can't prepare by playing video games and watching action blockbusters with heroes and automatic weapons, or with texts and Snapchat. It comes from human interaction, face to face, in all its glorious messiness. It comes from playground fights and clashes solved alone; from critical thinking developed from reading material picked by interest and not by parents or the government. It comes from freedom to be you, unhindered and left alone to blossom organically as your soul dictates, to be what you were born to be.
When I see children now, their lives micromanaged by well-meaning parents, I'm transported back to when I was 10 years old stretched out on the roof of our family's house. (Yes! I'm on the roof in my Keds!) I look up at the stars and wonder where life will take me when I grow up. I consider the endless opportunities spread out before me bright and twinkly with promise. I look forward with excitement because I can do anything.
No one ever told me I couldn't.